All posts by tomgb1

Releasing Tension

Of course we all know how easy it is to accumulate tension. On the one hand we have psychological and emotional sources of tension, generally understood under the banner of ‘stress’, on the other hand we have postural stress.  The psychological/emotional level causes us to contract, tighten or brace in response to external or internal stressors . It is harder to notice the more basic form of stress which is postural – we hold our body in positions where joints and muscles are under low intensity physical stress for long periods of time, such as sitting for many hours working on a computer or watching TV.

In our practice of Tai Chi we start by developing greater body awareness and we expand our ability to feel a whole lot more of the detail of our physical experience. This is the first level of our Qi work. With greater awareness we notice the source of our physical discomfort which was previously hidden for example leg pain may emanate from the lower back and knee pain from the hip. We may also find that there are whole areas of our body which hardly move and feel difficult to move. Tension can build up in such a way that parts of your body are locked into immobility. This tension manifests in muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints and for many people relates to the upper spine/neck/shoulder area or the lower back/hip/pelvis area. We use our body awareness as the basis of the ‘releasing tension’ method.

To describe how to release tension in one word its … movement. Our first movement practice is shaking! In every class we start with ‘Shaking and Breathing’ to music. This is the first, and perhaps most effective, tension releasing method in our school. It was developed by my teacher, Master San Gee Tam, inspired by his own direct interaction with Osho and his dynamic meditations. But shaking is only the start and as you practice more you find that almost everything we do in Tai Chi is a tension release method. Tai Chi movement uses the principle of dynamic stretching which means that the focus is on the movement and the stretch happens in the process of these movements. We use the Tai Chi frame (a very specific body structure) and we move with twists, turns and circular motions of the body/joints. We do all our dynamic stretching gently so at first you may not even notice that your body is getting stretched but over time this reliably releases tension and generates body relaxation.

A common mistake is for people to unconsciously fight their tension. This causes them to try too hard, so they approach their release with the thought of ‘breaking through’ tension and end up using too much force and making more tension. Our mind works like this and its counter intuitive to use less effort. The idea we want to develop is to use movement to melt tension – like ice to water.

The Tai Chi frame its self is fundamental to the release of tension. If poor posture is the source of chronic tension in the body then the Tai Chi frame introduces corrected posture to enable release and relaxation. (See article on Alignment on how to work with gravity and direct weight through the bones to the ground.)

As we progress we may become aware of a deeper kind of tension. We may notice we have knots and constriction inside our body such as a tightness inside the chest, a ball of tension around the solar plexus or ‘gut-wrenching’ feeling in the belly. Working with these deeper tensions is a slower process as they have typically built up over long periods of time and relate to deep rooted personal issues. Over time we learn to feel deep into the knots and use the subtle movement of breath/Qi to release little by little. Its sensitive work learning to feel into our deeper pain and slowly integrate it, we approach this with patience and gradualness so we avoid getting overwhelmed by the release of too much deep tension.

We keep progressing and growing as we let go of more and more tension and at some point we can work with our teacher to become more aware of beliefs that are buried deep in our mind that are the ultimate source of the tension we experience with our self and with life. Note that we don’t tend to address this until later on the the Tai Chi process – as our awareness has to get alot more more stable to allow us direct insight into our own mind.

If you attend a Tai Chi (or Qi-Gong) class you’ll probably have experienced that the teacher keeps repeating ….relax, relax, relax. Part of learning to relax is this process of releasing tension.

Becoming a Tai Chi Instructor

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In the International Golden Flower Tai Chi School we have a long tradition of teaching students to a professional level and hundreds of people have become Instructors. The School upholds a high standard to ensure that a Golden Flower Tai Chi Instructor has worked intensively on themselves, refined their ability to work with the forms and with Qi and is ready to start to transmit the art. Senior Instructors in our local schools teach advanced students the whole ‘Curriculum of the School’ in detail and support students to more deeply embody the Principles. When a Trainee Instructor is ready then they may take their Instructor Test with Master San Gee Tam and Chief Instructor Annukka Holland. In Oxford we have a weekly class for Trainee Instructors. So far one student of the Oxford School (Marie Carty) has ‘graduated’ to Instructor and we have one or two more who may do so soon! There is no fixed amount of time that it takes to reach Instructor Level – but it is measured in years. Becoming a Golden Flower Tai Chi Instructor is a significant achievement.

Qi and Body Alignment

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We know that posture is important for health – but the knowledge may not be sufficient for us to change. Posture is a long-term effect of the way we move and how we stand/sit. Tai Chi is an ideal system to practice postural improvement. Moving slowly in upright postures we have time to feel our body position and refine it. We start to identify with the ‘correct feeling’ as we move and this awareness of the ‘correct feeling’ grows naturally. We develop it in our Tai Chi practice and we apply it when we go for walks and when we move about at home or work. The correct position is based on awareness of the vertical and is built from the ground up: hips above feet, torso above hips and head above torso. The focus on verticality is based on standing positions where we line ourself up with gravity – the basic environmental force.

As we learn more about Tai Chi movement we build our awareness of body mechanics.

  1. The foundation of Tai Chi mechanics is the stance which is proportioned to be stable and allow free movement. We can fully shift our body weight into one leg and step forward or backwards into our stance. In the practice of stance and stepping we work with the structure of the hips and sacrum which later develop into the ‘energy centre’ of the body.
  2. The expression of Tai Chi mechanics is in the arms and hands which develop effortless power that emanates from the stance and transfers through the spine. This effortless feeling in the arms/hands comes from developing the structure of our upper back and shoulders and learning to link them to the lower body to make a unified whole.
  3. Correct practice of Tai Chi builds our ability to feel how we position our bones and joints and to smooth out postural issues. These are often in the stress points of the spine: the lower back/sacrum/hip axis or the upper-back/neck/shoulder axis.

Later we add in more subtle aspects of alignment. We learn how to ‘pull down the sacrum’, open the legs from our hips and move our legs with hip/knee/ankle/foot alignment. We learn to raise the spine, ’tuck in the chin’ to release our shoulders and to move our arms with shoulder/elbow/wrist/hand alignment.

 

Meditation. Qi calms Xin, Yi leads Qi

Feeling your body is the most basic aspect of the Qi experience. It is the most immediate and appropriate starting point. The practice of feeling Qi is a kind of meditation which enables you to develop your mind. The goal in the process of developing your mind is ‘balanced’ mind … balance in Tai Chi is Yin/Yang. The Yang aspect of mind is ‘Yi’: the Intentional or wisdom mind. The Yin aspect of mind is ‘Xin’: the Heart-Mind or emotional mind. As we develop a more balanced mind we play with the harmonious co-existance of these two aspects and more specifically we allow Yin to follow Yang … for the heart mind to be guided by the wisdom mind.

Ok…so this sounds great…lets learn to balance our heart-mind and our wisdom mind! The problem is that our own mind states can be hard to really see and because we are our mind the process is slippery. Luckily, in Tai Chi, we have a well mapped process that has been tried and tested over the centuries. The process might look something like this:

  • Start with an idea of ‘the purpose’. For most people the default state is for the heart-mind to ‘run riot’ and the wisdom mind to struggle to assert itself. So balancing involves focussing on what we want more of – that is wisdom.
  • Find a good teacher!
  • Use slow conscious movement to practice feeling your body. This has two effects – the slowing of your body calms your heart-mind down and the focussing on feeling engages your wisdom mind.
  • Practice going deeper into the feeling experience and become aware of increasingly subtle sensations. This strengthens the two effects.
  • Develop a practice habit. The ‘unpressured’ habit to practice strengthens your ‘will’. Will in turn supports the strengthening of the wisdom mind.
  • Remember that we do not want to attack or even try to diminish the heart-mind – this is the source of our passion and enables the rich texture of our experience. We want to balance the two aspects of mind.
  • As you practice notice how mental distraction arises. Start to clarify for yourself the difference between the wisdom and heart mind states. With wisdom you empower your ability to choose and develop personal freedom. The heart mind represents your reactions to reality including primal reactions (eg fear of rats) socialised reactions (eg anxiety about doing the ‘right’ thing) and, for most people, trauma reactions (strong reactions that protect us against perceived threats based on past traumatic experiences). Your heart-mind strongly relates to mental and emotional memory.
  • Develop patience and allow yourself time to change & grow.

Feeling Qi is the Key

As you starts to get to grips with learning Tai Chi, you will probably realise that feeling Qi (Chi) is the key – and you would be right! So…why is this?

Before we set about looking at why your practice of feeling Qi is so important, lets first look at what Qi is. In fact let’s go back a little more and understand the framework within which this explanation of Qi sits. Reality only exists (for you) in ‘the present moment’ when you start to describe and define reality you may easily step back from it and move into what you ‘think about it’ and when that happens you are one step removed from reality and in fact it no longer exists (for you) – reality is gone until you choose to return to it. So… Qi exists as one aspect of our pure experience of reality – its a feeling and its wordless. We can use words to describe it, but the words aren’t it! Qi exists in a realm that is different from knowledge, it is our experience of ourselves, our body, our emotions our subtle sense of life itself. Qi is a ‘vibe’ and your vibe relates to vibes around you, from beings and objects that you connect to. Qi is the ground, the air, the trees and plants, the changes and events that you are part of. Qi is people and animals in relationship. Qi is sensory and on a subtle level is also beyond sensory. Qi is universal.

The method to develop your ability to feel Qi is so simple, just practice Tai Chi movement and keep focussing your attention on what you feel. At first this does not seem that it would lead anywhere but in time learning to feel Qi can bring profound benefits.

Feeling Qi is the key to unlocking most aspects of Tai Chi. So lets give ourselves an overview of these and then we can return later to look into each one more deeply.

  • Focussing on feeling is a kind of meditation, which enables you to develop your mind. It is the practice of focus itself. It develops the basic passive/awake state of mind.
  • Feeling your body enables improvements to posture, body mechanics and deeper aspects of body alignment.
  • As we get stable in our ‘felt sense’ we can locate tension. Once found we can begin to learn to release tension- this process starts with obvious physical tensions, continues into emotional tension, which can go back to our experience of significant past events. Ultimately we can find the most subtle layers of ‘existential’ tension.
  • Our ability to work in the Qi level starts to bring insight into health and healing. We can experience how we move in a constant cycle through high and low energy states, we see how energy flows and circulates – both within us and in relation to people and our environment.
  • Bringing our attention to our breath is a huge aspect of feeling Qi, we notice where the breath goes, its quality and how it relates to mind, relaxation and movement. We can learn to change how we feel – by breathing.
  • Learning to feel can be applied to what we consume. We can really taste food and notice how it makes us feel. We can uncover hidden desires for consumption that are driven by how things make us feel – especially alcohol and drugs. Qi is intimately intertwined with what we eat and drink.
  • Tai Chi is Yin/Yang and, in our experience of Qi, we can start to discern the ‘dual aspect’ of what we feel. One part still one part moving, full and empty, expanding/contracting, up/down, forward/back and on and on.
  • Going further with Yin/Yang we see the process of change itself, this includes the five elements cycle of transformation: Metal ->Water ->Wood ->Fire -> Earth (->Metal and on.…)
  • In our study of feeling we can experience how our mind and body together initiate movement. We develop our ability for intentional movement in time we can discern intention itself.
  • With good guidance from an experienced teacher we can keep working with feeling Qi to develop the Three Treasures – Jing, Qi and Shen. This is ‘the system’ of Tai Chi training from physical health through vitality to spiritual attainment by working at ever more subtle levels of feeling.
  • Lastly (and optionally) if we continue for long enough to develop our Qi we may become a proficient internal martial artist.

Who would guess that something as simple as learning to feel could offer the potential to take you so far on a path of self development – and be fun/enjoyable most of the way. Happy Qi.

Spartan Up

Feeling the infectious enthusiasm of my american friends in the Golden Flower who completed a Spartan race in 2015 – especially Sangee, Annukka, Damien, Rick, Marc and Wendi – I formed a team on a cold wet New Years day  – it started small and grew organically.  Signing up for the race kick-started my ‘Spartan Up process’… motivated to get stronger whilst feeling a little fear of falling short. I had  injuries and pain along the way that made me worry and the Race was present in my mind as an obstacle that confronted me.  Getting family, friends and more of my Tai Chi family  to join the team felt easy and an amazing team emerged. We had three inspirational training sessions. Two of them led by Carla and Jos Gerritsen who shared their spartan wisdom !  These gatherings where huge fun and created a warm fuzzy glow : )  My training gathered momentum and as the day got closer I felt good about myself and what I had done – including some crazy things like building rope climbing and spear throwing stations at home.

In the end 16 of us where gathered on the start line last Saturday feeling pumped up and ready to go. Wooo.

before

The race was fun – all the way. The end was euphoric.

finish

Everyone in the team was amazing

The Spartan Up process boils down to a few key elements:
Exercising and getting fit is better within a team and working together to do a race as a team felt great . No gym membership required – just get outside run, do burpees hang off trees…aim for a balance between stamina, strength and few spartan obstacle techniques. Exercising can be fun if you connect with your inner child – go to the park and play on the monkey bars.  Obstacle races where you don’t know what you will have to do offer a mental challenge that mirrors life.

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Small Circle Training

Arriving back at Heavenly Way I feel a warm surge of appreciation for Master San Gee Tam, Annukka and the Heavenly Way Community for this beautiful space which supports us and provides the perfect setting for our training.  The level of the school just keeps on rising and now we are starting to study the highest level – ‘Lineage Level’ Yang Family Small Circle Form. To begin Sangee and Annukka lead the group into a more conscious space – we make sure that absolutely everything is ‘handled’ and then we go deeper into reality.  The session starts with Sangee giving an overview of the Small Circle Level of training and how it is really a study of the principles and a higher level of refining their embodiment.  We prepare to do the form by practicing the Taoist Relaxation Exercises with a more subtle awareness of Qi, then we start to work on the form. Each movement is taught in great detail and is practiced many times before learning the next.  We balance ever increasing level of relaxation with a more and more refined structure. The Qi is amazing and seems to come as much from the intention move into this higher level as it does from our physical reality.  I feel that Sangee is transmitting huge qi into the space and maybe that whole Yang family are adding theirs into the mix too!  It really is a great privilege to have access to such a high level of teaching and after 18 years of diligent study and practice I feel ready to embark on integrating this new level and inspired to continue my path of Tai Chi development. I also feel like simply doing nothing!white is white